By JOSEPH TINTLE
As we near spring it is time for our annual writing contest at our high school. This is when students step up and show off the skills they have acquired during the school year.
The assignment is simple: What would you say to your classmates, family, and friends if you knew you were going to die soon?
Sound familiar? It is the premise of “The Last Lecture” popularized by Randy Pausch, Ph.D., ten years ago. Pausch, a professor at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh, was asked if he would address the student body and fellow professors on the aforementioned topic. His deadline was in a year’s time. No problem, he said.
As the date drew near, Pausch learned that he had contracted pancreatic cancer and had little time to live. He could have pulled out of the assignment, but instead he saw it as a chance to help others. He delivered the lecture and it became an internet sensation. Soon his talk had more than ten million hits and became a best-selling book.
It is a moving lecture, as were the subsequent interviews he gave to television and radio hosts about facing death, its ramifications, and what he would miss most about life.
But how would high school students react to the same assignment? I found out in 2009, a year after Pausch died.
At first, hearing of the assignment students were baffled. “We’re going to write about death? they’d say. “Why?”
I told them what Socrates said 2,000 years ago: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” If we don’t stop every so often and assess the way we are conducting our lives and make improvements, we are doomed to a dull, fruitless existence.
The students saw the point and spent several days dreaming up penetrating questions to ask themselves.
We’ve held this contest every year since Pausch died, and trophies are awarded by me to the top two in each of my five classes. For years I’ve had a local shop design a trophy that resembles the Hollywood Oscar. It’s a beautiful piece of craftsmanship and the students love the fact that it is personalized. It features their names, the titles of their talks, and the dates they were presented.
When I broach the idea of the writing contest every September, I get the usual responses.
“I’m not doing this,” one kid says.
“Do we have to present in front of the class?” another asks.
By the time we write and rewrite hundreds of pages of essays throughout the year and the students see their improvement, they eventually inquire about the contest date.
But there was something different about this year. While I always model assignments for my students, I don’t for “The Last Lecture.” I figure by then everyone ought to be able to jump right into it and produce. However, a couple of students asked me if I would write one, so they’d have a better feel for the assignment.
I did not commit at first, but the next morning about a half hour before class I decided to punch out a talk. It took twenty minutes and while I know it would have been better had I given it hours of my time over a period of days, I knew I could write something that would help these particular students. So here goes:
Doctors told me yesterday that I have contracted a rare disease that is expected to cut down my life within nine months. And though I don’t want to get into the particulars at this time, I do want to tell all of you how much I have enjoyed teaching you this year and that you have meant so much to me.
You always came to class on time prepared to learn, and whether you realized it or not you taught me a lot as well. I can tell you right now that you will be successes in life, but more importantly you are just good young people.
I am going to miss so much about the life I’ve been blessed with all these years and I’d like to tell you a bit about me and what I’ll miss most.
As soon as I got the medical news I began missing my wife, Kathy, and our sons, Kieran and Patrick, and, of course, our dog, Curtis. All of whom I love.
My wife and I met 35 years ago. I knew she was the one for me the moment I first saw her walk through the door that led to the editorial department of The Daily Journal in Elizabeth, N.J. I wasted little time asking her out and even less time proposing marriage ten weeks later. She said YES – three years later.
We married in 1986 and eventually our sons were born. During the following years Kathy and I spent hours with them in all aspects of their lives: Little League, school, and later attending their live music shows right into their twenties. I am so grateful that I have been able to spend so much time with my family. Not every dad and husband is as lucky.
Twenty-five years of my life was also spent as a sportswriter. While I liked that career, it was no legacy. A legacy is when you leave behind something important for others.
So I took up teaching. I’ve been at it for 18 years now.
As I’ve said, I liked sports writing, but I love teaching.
At first, friends and family thought I was crazy entering the world of education. Not much money, they reminded me.
“And kids today are crazy,” they added.
But I saw teaching as a “calling.” And this powerful pull deep within my gut insisted that I had to help others.
Along the way, I received good advice from the man who hired me at Elizabeth High School in 2001. His name is Richard Long. “Every time you step into a classroom try to be the best teacher a student ever had,” he advised.
Now, I may not clear that particular bar in some students’ opinions, but I try. Who knows? Perhaps one day someone might recall me as a “good” teacher or at least “okay.” That’s actually high praise coming from a teenager.
What students have taught me over the years is that you cannot tell them what to do; you need to convince them of taking certain actions.
Case in point: Years ago I spent 90 minutes trying to talk a male student of mine out of having a certain female student beaten up after school. He had gang affiliations and his threat was legitimate. So we talked and talked – and talked.
Eventually the male student said, “I’ll call it off mister if you give me an ‘A’ for the marking period.”
That wasn’t going to fly, I told him. So we kept talking. I think he was impressed that I was so persistent, and in the end he called off his boys. The girl was never bothered again.
Yes, teaching has been a deeply moving experience. During discussions I’ve had with students over the years most often I only listen. Sometimes a young person just needs to be heard.
From those listening sessions, I have learned that many teenagers’ problems are the result of young people not having a father figure in their lives.
Now, if you become a dad or a mom, love your son or daughter, involve yourself in your child’s life, always be a good influence, and be patient.
So here I stand before you at 65 years of age. I am not financially wealthy, but I am wealthy in experience – and that has given me a rich life.
A life I will dearly miss.